Ben Lowry: Unionism has sent out a signal of defeatism and weakness

I have heard it said more than once recently that the thinking in Whitehall is that you can impose unpalatable solutions on unionists.

Saturday, 18th January 2020, 4:47 pm
Updated Saturday, 18th January 2020, 5:09 pm
After his various betrayals of unionists, Boris Johnson nonchalantly turned up in Stormont, welcomed by the DUP, and made an unfunny play on Tony Blair’s 'hand of history' remark. Photo Laura Davison/Pacemaker Press

The latter will complain furiously, goes the thinking, but if you give them cash they will go along with it.

Well the establishment is wrong in one part of its assumption.

The last few months have shown that unionists will barely even complain.

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Many of today’s problems of official interference in Northern Ireland and pro nationalist rhetoric from Dublin, alongside UK neutrality and weakness, have their origins in the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement.

Much of the unionist reaction to that betrayal by Margaret Thatcher, which she went to her death bed regretting (according to her advisor Charles Powell), was ill judged. Some protests descended into thuggery.

But for many years, into the 1990s, the full spectrum of unionism – even a moderate, non protesting wing –made clear its contempt for the fact that a formal say in NI had been given to a state that had done little to stop its territory being a base for decades of IRA terrorism.

Contrast that with the unionist reaction to the even greater concessions London has given nationalist Ireland in the last three months.

The DUP directed little invective towards Boris Johnson, after his second betrayal of them.

His first betrayal was last March when he voted for Theresa May’s Brexit deal, months after he came to the DUP conference and explained to the party faithful in explicit terms why the then prime minister’s plan divided the UK.

His betrayal of the party this year was even more rapid. At the Tory conference he had toured the membership of the three non English home nations, reaffirming his commitment to the Union. Then he did the same at the DUP reception.

At each event, he was cheered by chants of ‘Boris, Boris, Boris’. The next day Mr Johnson’s first offer to Brussels emerged, of a full regulatory border (for standards of goods) in the Irish Sea. The DUP backed this on the basis of a Stormont lock, and because NI would remain fully in UK customs territory (for tariffs), which implied a land frontier for the latter (policed by technology).

Weeks later, the prime minister not only moved all customs enforcement to the Irish Sea, thus a full internal UK trade barrier, he abandoned the Stormont lock. Worse, he humiliated Nigel Dodds in a packed House of Commons Saturday sitting, implying that he wanted a veto (having never criticised Sinn Fein for actually wielding a Stormont veto for three years).

Mr Johnson, the man who talked the toughest on Brexit and the Union, acted the weakest.

And what did some high profile pro unionist Brexiteers, people who have a UK-wide platform, do? Apart from angry words in Westminster they never explained the betrayal to people in Great Britain.

In an influential Tory inclined publication, just after the PM’s brutal conduct, one friend of unionism wrote complacently that “there can be no doubt of the strength of Boris Johnson’s sincere unionism”.

A pro Brexit, pro unionist politician on TV recently welcomed the election victory of Mr Johnson and his ability to progress his Brexit plan but said that he just needed to sort out the Northern Ireland part, as if his Irish Sea border pledge to the EU was easily removed.

Another politician said Boris could win back the trust of unionists with a bridge to Scotland.

It is understandable that people who have made Brexit as central to their ideology as their unionism find it hard to admit that Mr Johnson, their saviour on the first constitutional goal, has betrayed them on their other one, their unionism.

But by suggesting that the PM’s abandonment of his explicit pledges to unionists is a minor, manageable matter sends out a message to influential Conservatives that something almost all top Tories said they would never accept — the economic divide of the UK — is OK.

Then, within weeks of this signal of unionist weakness, the unionist response to the worst aspects of this Stormont deal is even worse.

On Radio Ulster Talkback this week an Ulster Unionist MLA praised Simon Coveney’s role in the deal —the most interventionist and partisan Irish minister in decades, who told us we must have an Irish language act (as we now will, in all but name) and who presided over the trashing of the three strands.

Another UUP MLA seemed to back the De Souza citizenship case, which has been seized on by nationalists in their latest assault on the Belfast Agreement.

But in fairness to those two UUP MLAs, the DUP has most to explain. Their support for the deal was critical to it, and seems to have been secured with little internal dissent.

Does that party dispute Jim Allister’s analysis in this newspaper (see link below) of the likely scope of the Irish language legislation? If it has its own analysis by a QC of the implications of the coming commissioner’s powers, we will be happy to publish it.

The DUP had sight of the deal before smaller parties, so presumably the appearance of a commitment to introduce the Stormont House legacy bodies within 100 days surprised them as much as everyone else.

This week Doug Beattie said (see link below ‘A major legacy row is brewing’) he heard Julian Smith tell Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly in the talks: ‘We need to discuss the specifics on legacy.’

After the deal was done, the Sinn Fein finance minister Conor Murphy criticised the extra £100 million (total £250m) allocated for legacy bodies as inadequate.

Sinn Fein has for a while demanded the legacy structures be implemented. It suggests that a party once seen as inextricably linked to the IRA believes a mooted Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) will damage the security forces, as critics on these pages have warned.

Far from Boris Johnson helping unionists after his betrayal of them, as some people close to Tory leaders thought he would, he has let Julian Smith turn the screw.

There is not even a clause to stop Sinn Fein toppling Stormont again.

After all that, and his Brexit u-turn, Mr Johnson nonchalantly turned up in Stormont on Monday and made an unfunny play on Tony Blair’s ‘hand of history’ remark. He was met by a beaming DUP leader.

With the UUP now in the executive, that party’s opposition to legacy and the Irish language act will be ignored. The two governments will say all five parties backed the deal.

London and Dublin must think that unionism, apart from Jim Allister, will resist barely anything.

Perhaps this is all due to a defeatist mindset — that continual concessions to nationalism are needed to stay in the Union.

For now, executive positions and Stormont patronage are back — until the next republican demands.

When that happens, their demands might be backed by non unionist parties. They will be backed by the full weight of the Irish state.

And London, pushed by the NIO, will be ‘neutral’ but in fact do all it can to facilitate the said demands.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor